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Snow Shoveling Safety

Snow Shoveling Safety | UPMC Health Plan

Winter is here. For many of us, that means snow. While the kids might like the snow, many of us adults see nothing but stress when it flies. Not only is it cold, snow impairs visibility and makes driving more difficult, adding to commute times. It also can damage property, plus force you to clear your curb, like it or not.

And face it — shoveling snow is very, very vigorous exercise.

That’s good, right? Most of us don’t get enough exercise as it is, so maybe it’s a blessing, right?

Not so fast.

If you don’t exercise much, it’s usually not a good idea to start with something really strenuous. If it were a regular exercise program, we’d recommend starting with a walking routine, not an hour straight of running on a treadmill or lifting weights.

Let me put it another way: Shoveling snow can kill you. Not surprisingly, heart attacks are the most common cause of death related to shoveling.

Two leading medical journals, Lancet and the American Journal of Cardiology have each published findings that rates of heart failure go up in the weeks following a blizzard. Deaths from ischemic heart disease, or coronary artery disease where the arteries have narrowed or hardened, also rise after a blizzard. According to a study by the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the Ohio State University College of Medicine, 195,100 Americans were treated in emergency departments from 1990-2006 because of snow-shoveling incidences.

Here’s how shoveling affects your body:

  • Because of the sheer physical exertion of shoveling snow, your heart rate and blood pressure will rise considerably. Shoveling is almost always very hard work.
  • People often hold their breath when bending over and also when moving heavy weights. This is called a Valsalva maneuver, and it causes a spike in blood pressure.
  • Your blood pressure and heart will also be elevated because of the cold.
  • Even the act of moving around in snow (walking, shuffling, etc.) is much harder work than moving around without snow.
  • Your body will expend more energy just to maintain an even temperature in cold conditions.
  • In the cold your blood has higher concentrations of fibrinogen, which facilitates blood clotting.
  • Cold air makes breathing more difficult for many people. This also expends more energy.

You can minimize your risk by following these tips:

  • Take breaks. Work for 10 minutes and stop for a few minutes. Pay attention to how well you recover in those minutes.
  • Warm up a little before going to work. You can do this inside before you begin.
  • Plan for a water break.
  • Pay attention to what type of snow it is. Wet snow will be heavier per shovelful than powdery snow. Go with a half-load per shovel if it’s heavy.
  • It doesn’t all have to be gone immediately. Break the job down into smaller, manageable parts. Clear some now. Clear more later on. Clear more even later than that.
  • Don’t eat a large meal right before or just after shoveling snow. Digesting food makes your heart work in and of itself. A meal may be just what puts you over the tipping point.
  • Use a smaller shovel, or buy a snow thrower.
  • Don’t drink alcohol before or immediately after snow removal. Alcohol can impair your judgment of how hard you are working and can mask symptoms of excessive strain.
  • Dress warm enough! Hypothermia leads to heart failure. Start out with layers and shed them as you warm up.

Know these signs of a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort: pain, pressure, stuffiness, squeezing. It can go away and come back or last for more than a few minutes.
  • Other upper body areas: pain or discomfort in the jaw, arm (one or both), back, or stomach.
  • Excessive sweat, nausea, or dizziness.
  • Feeling very unwell and being unable to recover several minutes after stopping shoveling.

If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911. EMS can begin treatment when they arrive. You will also be seen sooner at a hospital if you arrive via ambulance. If you cannot access an ambulance service, have someone drive you to an emergency room immediately. Minutes count.

Here’s a question: Do you have to shovel snow? According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (Canadians know about snow!), you should not shovel snow if you have had a heart attack, heart surgery, or stroke.

You should consult your doctor if you have uncontrolled blood pressure, high cholesterol, are obese, smoke, are overweight, or have an inactive lifestyle.

People who shouldn’t shovel snow still do it every winter. Why?

There is a lot of social pressure to clear your walk after a snowfall. People want to be a good neighbor, be civically responsible, be self-sufficient, and not want to be seen as lazy.

It doesn’t have to be you. Treat the job with the respect it deserves. If you have any of the traits that make shoveling potentially dangerous, hire someone or ask for help.

According to the American Heart Association, most people will not have health problems from shoveling snow. That’s good enough for most of us. If you are capable of shoveling snow, consider helping your neighbors who needs help. They may not be able to afford to hire someone.

There are other, more minor risks of shoveling snow:

  • Back pain
  • Frostbite
  • Falls

Here are some rules of thumb to avoid those pitfalls:

  • Use a longer-handled shovel.
  • Use a back-saver design if you are prone to back spasms.
  • Do not rotate or twist your body while shoveling.
  • Bend at the knees, not at the waist.
  • Use a snow blower.
  • Minimize skin exposure, especially on the hands, face, and ears.
  • Have good snow boots with good traction, not just warm boots or shoes.

Good luck and enjoy the winter!